Successful Musicians Podcast Episode 2
Interviewee: Joe Bongiorno
Interviewer: Jason Tonioli
Hey, this is Jason Tonioli. I’m a piano player that grew up believing it wasn’t possible to earn a living and support a family with music. I’ve proven that idea was wrong and I’ve met hundreds of other people who have found success with their music. This podcast features stories of musicians who have found their own personal version of success and fulfillment in both music and life. This podcast is meant to inspire musicians and help them believe in their abilities and motivate them to share their talents with others. This is the Successful Musicians Podcast.
Hey guys, Jason Tonioli here. I am excited to introduce our guest Joe Bongiorno. So he is a piano player. He now lives in Sedona but got his start in the Seattle area and has been at this for well over 20 years. He used to work in the restaurant business and just has a really incredible story. He is kinda living the dream now, he has a recording studio in Sedona. He used to do a lot of recording for people back in the Seattle area as well. Definitely not your normal musician half. So Joe I just wanna welcome you here today and tell us about your story.
Joe: You know I was managing, waiting tables, bartending and then I went to restaurant management. The only reason I ever went into restaurant management was because I took a huge pay cut from a high-end, you know five-star serving job, waiting tables making a couple 300 bucks a night in three or four hours. I knew that my only way to get out was to get to the top of that career, which meant getting into a six figures plus salary and investing. First of all, getting out of debt and second of all, using my efforts in the restaurant business to invest in my music career.
I quit the restaurants on June 22, 2010. One of the very greatest days of my life personally. Just the sense of accomplishment that I had been doing this for 10 years. I was working on my 5th album, working on 14 now, I got more time now.
I worked my tail off and I got into offer management. I had a great staff at the restaurant I worked at and I used to always tell these kids I would say, “Listen, none of us here have any desire to be doing what we’re doing for the rest of our lives, myself included.”
They knew I was a piano player. They knew I had my dreams but I told them, I said:
“The way I believe to make your dreams come true is to give a hundred percent to everything you do. I don’t care if you’re bussing tables, washing dishes, because that’s how I started, that’s how I got myself out of bussing tables and washing dishes and waiting tables into a job with real responsibility and real creativity. I got to design menus. I got very challenged with spreadsheets and budgeting and I learned a whole bunch of stuff I had no idea about but I was given an opportunity because of my efforts.”
I had no college degree. The company was very weary to promote me to the general manager position but I told him I said, “You know just give me a shot because I’m not in the business of letting people down. I’m not in the business of letting myself.”
The music took a back step. I was doing an album maybe every three years in the beginning because I’m working 50, 60, 70 hours a week. I’m also Dj-ing weddings and playing piano for weddings on the weekends and I have a teenage daughter. It was crazy.
It was absolutely nuts but I look back and I just smile. I probably had two, three hundred people come through my recording studio here in
the last 12 years since 2007, 15 years. A lot of them come in with stars in their eyes and they’re like, “Joe, tell us how you do it. How do you make a living with this? I said,
“You commit, you take your time, you define your craft, you define your sound. We don’t need any more Jim Brickman’s. We don’t need any more David Lanz. We need an original sound, a sound that people can relate to, the sound of the melody and emotion.”
“Don’t go quitting your job because for my first album, I gave away five thousand CDs
in 2000. I printed out 5000 CDs and I gave them to anyone and anyone who would take them. I would hand them out. I’d go to weddings with a whole stack of 50, 100 CDs, take one, my treat and I got on mp3.com way back in the day, gave my music away for free and had 50 million downloads. It’s about spinning the web. It’s about putting, just putting it out there and not putting pressure on yourself. Don’t quit your day job, love your day
job because your day job is your ticket, big part of the ticket to your dream.”
Jason: For sure. Tell me a little bit about your beginnings with music. It made me smile as I was kind of learning more about how you were younger and you know you wanted to quit piano or I guess you did quit piano for a while but just share with everybody that story.
Joe: When I was about nine years old, my father who was a very accomplished classical pianist, who decided to become a doctor and have a family instead of trying to be a classical pianist (which he still did some of back in the day) and my grandfather was a very successful jazz pianist ( Felix Bongiorno). He had a band in Chicago, a big time band in the 40s on Columbia records known as Felix and the Cats. He ended up meeting my grandmother. She wanted a family. She didn’t want a life on the road and he quit his orchestra and started his family.
My way is the exact opposite. I didn’t want to play piano as a kid. I want to play football, baseball and sport. I didn’t enjoy the piano. I liked playing it by myself but I didn’t enjoy playing music that I was told to play. I didn’t particularly care for classical music. I had a teacher who hit you with the ruler on the hand when you made a mistake. It was kind of old school and it just wasn’t fun and my father finally was like whatever you quit but you’re going to thank me.
I got into my teens and I bought a synthesizer and I played in a rock band. A lot of really challenging stuff but I taught myself the keyboard and then I built a small recording studio up in the San Juan Islands in Washington in my 20s and I ran that, I was kind of a singer-songwriter haven up there. I always felt empty doing that until I finally fell in love with piano music at the age of 26 and I was introduced to the music of Wayne Grass and somebody randomly gifted me a CD and I just loved it. I started going to my keyboard and one of the piano sounds and plunking away at it and learning these pieces so fast forward to 2001, I’ve got 12 songs I wrote and I’m going to make an album.
I had no dreams, no expectations. It was just something I could do. I would sit down there, night after night in my basement on my little Kawai upright so I was tuned but just practicing and teaching myself how to play. My technique is terrible and it limits my ability because I was in my 20s and I couldn’t be taught at that point. I didn’t want to be taught.
That was kind of the story. I actually fell in love with the grand piano. I was actually at the Drake Hotel in Chicago where my aunt was working and she walked me over to a nine-foot Bösendorfer in the Russian tea room there and then just started noodling on it and she was just like, “I didn’t know you could play.”
I’m like, “Well, I don’t really play, I noodle.”
She goes, “Whatever you’re doing, it’s really pretty, keep playing.”
People started coming up and I was making tips . I just sat there for an hour and played and that’s when I went home and bought an upright piano. A lot of work. It’s not easy for I’m not a gifted, born natural pianist. I have an ear and I have a great sense of creativity but I painstakingly gruel through learning all my pieces and perfecting my pieces to the point where I want to represent them.
I can’t sit down and improvise an album. I have people that come here in the studio all the time and it makes me crazy jealous. I want to beat my fingers because I’m just, “How do you do that?”
It’s just my world and it’s my limitation and it’s okay but I will literally spend 3-4 hours on a piece recording it and that’s after you know playing it probably 10,000 times practicing it getting the arrangement the way I want.
Jason: So as you’re doing it, do you write out the sheet music for it as well or is it more by ear that you play?
Joe: I don’t do sheet music. I hired a John Ezekiel guy to do my sheet music. No, it’s all just by memory. I figure if I don’t remember it, it wasn’t good enough to remember. Every once in a while, we’ll panic because I’ll sit down at a piano and go “What was I doing together?” It comes back, I figure, if it doesn’t come back and what, it didn’t leave the mark.
Jason: I’m one of those where I’ve got my iPhone close by now and I’ll hit the little voice recorder and record the little, idea snippets all the time.
Joe: So you could go back and listen.
Jason: You’ve been running a studio for a long time. In 2010 you started your studio, moved down to Sedona, you get a lot of piano artists that come in. For those that are piano players, what advice do you have for people coming in or wanting to do their piano albums? I’m just curious people come in with this expectation or idea in their head of what it’s going to be like and how do you get the best out of the people when they come into the studio?
Joe: It’s all about preparation. I actually have a little article on my website, if you go to pianohavenstudio.com there’s a little pdf I made that I embedded there, it’s about advice for preparing for your first studio session and I wrote that because so many people would come in, in some facet unprepared so I tried to make a blanket article to help people become prepared.
I tell people, you know, go home and record it on your phone. The first thing is you need to be playing on a real piano. It’s very difficult to go from playing at home on a digital piano, playing a real grand piano. The touch is completely different. There are many more layers of dynamics in a real piano. The pedal is not silent, you get clunky. There’s just so many different aspects so I tell people, whatever you have to do, go to your church, play your piano there, go rent a little upright, any kind of acoustic piano is what you should be playing on. Prepare for your settings.
Practice breathing. My big problem when I used to record is I would hold my breath. The longer I get into a piece when I realize I’m running out of oxygen and my hands are shaking, it’s a mistake it’s not productive. It’s just having your music ready – note for note. Have it engraved in your brain before you try and record.
A lot of my first time clients, if they’re not too far away, I say, “Hey, come down here, fly down here for a day and sit with me in this studio for a couple hours and let me hear where you’re at and I will give you advice on whether or not I think you’re ready and if you’re not, I’ll walk you through everything I think you need to do and put you on a plan to go back home, certain things you need to practice, maybe it’s your left hand right hand balance.
A lot of people come in with really hard left hands and you can’t hear the melody as well. A lot of people just come in and think they always have to be playing notes all the time. No, you don’t. One of the most beautiful things about contemporary solo piano music is the spaces. Leave your listener hanging there. Tension and resolve. Build something, hold it and let it resolve into something you know and by adding variety to your music. Don’t just keep playing your melody over. I had a great lesson once from Kevin Curran. Are you familiar with his music?
Jason: A little bit, yeah.
Joe: A really great artist. He sat me down in 2013. He came and visited. We did some concerts here in Sedona and he sat me down and said, “Play music.” This is one of my icons. I’m shaking and I’m nervous and and he’s blind by the way, so he comes up and puts his hand on my shoulder and just says play and I play a song for him. He goes, okay, now I want you to record that song so I recorded the song and he worked with me for 3-4 hours on that song alone showing me different ideas, different things, making me pronounce my right hand, making me do more of the melody, more repetition, more variations on the melody, softer left hand, dynamic changes, tempo changes and stuff to make it more interesting and 3 hours later, we ended up re-recording the song. It was unbelievable. The night and day difference. Everything he had taught me in 3 hours and it was probably the single most effective 3 hours I’ve ever had because it just opened up a whole new door on how I play piano.
I try to work with young artists who are interested and willing to be taught. A lot of artists come in here and they don’t want to have anything to do with my opinion. That’s great, you come in here and do your thing. But we can all help.
Jason: I think one of the things I’ve learned in multiple studio, released a dozen or so CDs now but what I think is good, I mean you can come into the studio and you think you’re polished and good, just like your experience you just shared, when we throw it out to the people who are experts at their trade, the engineer or the producer, you say, hey what do you think and you’re open and humble enough to take some criticism and you may not even like it or you may not agree with it but I’ve found when I’ve been open to taking that criticism and saying, okay, just try this, it just takes your music to a whole other level. You think you got it but somebody else knows. It’s almost like the parent knows what you’re capable of but the kid doesn’t. Teenagers do not want to listen but if they’ll just listen a little bit, you get to like the age you’re 25 or 30 years old and you’re like oh man they were pretty smart.
Joe: A lot of artists don’t understand that if you want to have success, you have to have some frame of business mind, and that goes into your song. You have to know what’s working out there. I listen to Pandora. I listen to Spotify. I hear what’s working for each of these formats and it’s very different across each format. As far as the solo piano, new age contemporary genre, whatever you want to call it, there are a lot of things that are in common — it’s melody and emotion but there’s a craft to songwriting and you don’t want to do a 90-second song, you don’t want to do a seven-minute song. There’s a sweet spot between 2.5 and 4.5 minutes. You have to be able to pull your listener in with some interesting stuff somewhere in that song, whether it be a bridge or a modulation or you know a tempo change or something, just something very creative. If people want to have success in the piano world, writing music, study what’s working. Study the music of all your favorite artists and then discover artists that are clearly popular that you didn’t even ever heard of. Play their music and you’re going to come down to some common denominators. Come down to common denominators and use that as an outline for writing solo piano’s.
Jason: It may not even be the type of music you like but with all the research tools there are out there now, you can go in and see. If your goal is to get lots of streams or whatever, if your goal is to hit that, go research what’s getting all the streams. There’s lots of reasons why I think the song sometimes, there’s lucky breaks. There’s all kinds of different things but it’s interesting to me sometimes the repetitiveness of some of these really popular songs that will just have such a simple little theme, that you’ll almost get tired of listening to it. I’ve just intentionally gone in like , why is it that that one’s getting more listens? Just learn from it. You may not agree with it or like it or even want to use it but you know if you can always be interested in wanting to learn, it’ll pay off down the road — maybe like 5 years from now when you have that one little catchy thing that’s like, oh it’s kind of like that.
Joe: A lot of successful artists have a signature song, really every artist. Even if your numbers are in the beginning and they’re not great and they’re not the numbers you’re looking for, why is one song doing better after a period of about a year? You don’t you don’t want to go judging stuff too quickly but you know give your own songs a year and see what happens and why is this one getting 10 times more play now? The first song in the album you have to be careful with because people are going to hit that first. I have a song from 2007 called “Melancholy Morning” and it’s had 150 million plays on Pandora since 2007. It’s getting a hundred you know, 100 000 plays a day, a lot of times but I go back and I used to do this, I used to study. I’m like why is this song so crazy gone cook so crazy viral more so than all the other ones?
Again, it’s melody, emotion. There’s interesting changes. It’s actually a 6.5 minute song which is pretty rare but it goes into places and it comes back and there’s continuity to it and I get asked to play it. I don’t dare do a concert without playing that song. I tell everybody, if you’re gonna go out and perform, you gotta play the oldies. It’s fun to play your new stuff because I love my new stuff a whole lot more than my old stuff but when I’m performing, if I don’t play ‘Melancholy Morning’, someone’s going to come out and tap me on the shoulder and go “Why?”
Jason: I’m laughing because just a couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go see Garth Brooks in concert. Of all the country artists, Garth’s like the guy and he started out his show. He goes, I’m here to play the old stuff, do you want to hear my new stuff? I’m here to do the old stuff. It was crazy but he just owned it and recognized like, here’s what you’re going to, if this is what people like, that’s what I’m going to do for you.
Joe: Maybe a lot of places , you know, write articles on you know you got to give them what they came there for and they’re coming to hear the songs that they have emotional attachments to. It’s probably not one off the brand new album, not to say you can’t make a couple but you’re there to entertain that.
Jason: You’ve brought in so many piano artists, I think piano is one of the most exposed instruments. It’s almost like you’re naked out there because if you screw it up, it’s very hard to cover up if there’s a mistake. As you’re bringing people in or musicians, what advice, other than being super prepared, how do you bring that artist in there to sit down at the piano and take that deep breath and have the best performance out of them now that they’re prepared and ready to go?
Joe: Breathing is really important because people get tense and stressed when they’re recording. When they’re not used to it and I still do to a degree, sometimes I know when to walk away and come back. I tell them to go to the place in their head where they were when they wrote the song. Go to that place, sit there for 30 seconds before you even start playing and just put yourself in that place and stay in that place. Whether it’s a sad song, a happy song, go to that emotion, really embrace that emotion and play through this song and stick with that emotion. It’s really amazing, the difference because I’d be AB people okay we just recorded that song, it sounds nice now, I want you to try this and it’s unbelievable almost every time. The night and day difference in the emotion of the performance and it comes through the piano. It absolutely comes through. If you’re present with your emotion, you’re not just playing to hit the right notes. My whole first album was a struggle for me because all I wanted to do was not make a mistake. That was my goal. That’s where I was and the album actually does great but someday I’m going to revisit it and redo it because I play those songs now with so much more emotion and I’d love to revisit that album. I think that’s a real, between that and breathing and just forgetting that it’s recording. You don’t have to play it perfectly, you can make a little mistake. Just go while you’re playing, go back, fix the mistake, we’ll cut the part out, you don’t even have to stop so and everybody edits, everybody.
Probably, out of 14 albums nailed, ten songs in for in one single take. I’m not ashamed to admit that. I’ll do 5,6,7 takes of each song. I’ll pick the best take. If it has a few weak spots, I’ll pull those from other takes and I tell them you’re not under pressure to do this perfectly in one take. Anything they do really take the pressure off. They need time to play the piano when they come into the studio. I usually let them play for a half an hour off the clock just to get you know get their fingers wet, get used to the touch, that’s a really important thing too because every piano plays differently. We’re the only musicians in the world who don’t get to go out and play our own instrument all the time. Cello players, I’ve talked to guitar players. I was just talking to Eric Tinkstep the other day, we’re doing a, he’s playing guitar in one of my pieces on my new album and I’m like you know man your guitar sounds amazing. I told him about the piano and I can never rarely perform on my own piano and he was like and I go imagine you just showing up to a concert, someone just laying a piano in your hand saying you have 10 minutes to practice .He’s like, I would never do it. It’s the same thing in a recording studio, you’re not playing your piano. I mean a handful of really lucky artists are but most of us aren’t.
Jason: You commented earlier about the business side of things. You said artists need to know the business side. Where do you recommend going to learn that or kind of get that background in order for a musician to kind of do well starting out?
Joe: There’s a lot of artist groups. There’s forums and there’s artist groups on Facebook. I’m in 15 or 20 of them and there’s always great information being shared there so I have a whole core list of those that I’ll send as links to new artists. Get your feet wet here. There’s a lot of tutorials and almost any of the digital distributed distributors they’re trying to teach you the 101s.
I have a little basic overview of all the things a new artist has to do — registered with sound exchange. As an artist and as a songwriter, I registered with the MLC who is going to be taking over almost all royalty collections in the next 10 years. How to choose a digital distributor, choose the one that has a financial plan that’s right for you.
Just take your time. It’s a craft, and it’s intimidating now but people don’t want to get involved in in publishing which can be you know very intimidating and it’s a real drag to go onto all these sites and register your songs get everything uploaded, everything listed just right, you know use Songtradr or a Songtrust. They’ll do all your publishing for you. They’re going to take a big piece of your fine, if you’re really successful down the road, they’re going to win the game but you can do it yourself.
David Nabby wrote a great book on how to make music on the internet and it’s a tad bit dated at this point but David Nabby if you don’t know, he’s a very successful solo piano artist, good friend of mine. It’s a great blueprint for a learning artist and he’s a pianist so if they’re starting in the genre, even though some of it’s a little dated, it’s a great way to kind of get your feet wet in business and study. There’s so many books out there. Just study. Spend as much time learning the business as you do learning your craft.
Jason: Absolutely and I found on the podcast area is one of the best places I’ve learned, run across a lot of great music marketing advice there, some really great ones out there like Modern Musician, Music Marketing Manifesto I’ve run across as well that’s just got people sharing their success stories and and kind of the car crash type stories too sometimes that we all go through as you know throughout our careers as well.
Joe , if somebody wants to go check out some of these articles or learn more about you or your studio, where’s the best place for them to do that?
Joe: My website is solopianomusic.com and there’s a tab with pianohaven there you can or you can go straight to pianohaven.com which takes you to the page on that site. Last time, I’m on every streaming platform there is, if not let me know and I figure I’m going to get on there. You know, just stay on top of things folks. I mean my bread and butter is Pandora by far. Back in 2007, I was managing the restaurant and late at night, I was waiting for the last table to leave. I couldn’t close the books. I’m running an internet search for internet radio solo piano music. I was 30 or 40 pages deep into a google search and I came across this Pandora. Nobody knew what it was. Never heard of it before. I clicked on it and it had a little send us your music, just an address. It got a lot harder than that but I took that and sent in my music and I sent the link to five or six other friends in the solo piano business that I had just met and all of us became you know staple artists at Pandora. You know it’s timing. Put yourself in a position for success by having your music in all the right places and part of that’s the job of your distributor but it’s also if you want to go beyond distributor, go beyond distributing the music, you know there’s sync there’s licensing. Frankly, I’ve done very little of that. I got lucky, I had a piece used by a figure skater in the Olympics in Russia last year and I had a huge chain come through asking them and that’s all they were telling me.
One night, I woke up late at night and checked my email and about 60 people said, “Hey, it was really cool to hear you at the olympics. It took me a lot of research to find out who played it and what song they used. And about six months later, a nice jump king.
About sync licensing, it’s kind of one on my to-do list. I’m sure I would have been more into it had I not had the success I had on Pandora. Get on your day jobs first.
Jason: The thing is, I’ve just learned is you’ve got to be able to earn your enough income to be able to do the music and kind of play because if you’re a starving artist, I’ve seen too many people get discouraged with not being able to do the level of production or the level of whatever they need up to that music, to to take it up to to be successful long-term too so it’s it’s definitely getting easier.
Joe: I was very very scared of quitting my day job because I knew that it was going
to put pressure on my music. I’ve never had the time to ever have pressure but all of a sudden I’m taking you know a six-figure salary out of my income and I was making a time about 35000 a year of my music and saying okay I’m gonna put the burden of my income on my music and I went through about nine months of writer’s block, only time in my life I had a kind of you know because I had put too much pressure on myself and I’ve seen a lot of people quit their job after they’re making their first album just to promote it. No, you don’t need to quit your job to promote your album. You can stay up late nights, you can work weekends , do your homework but understand what your bread and butter is. I have three young kids here. I’m blessed to be home with them and at the age, I’m 53 and I have a four and a six year old. I never would have had three more kids had I been working 50, 60 hours a week in a restaurant, right? But here I am, on blast, having kids at home, my wife at home and I live in my favorite place in the world.
Jason: You got an incredible piano behind you there too, so you can’t complain.
Joe: It’s the pinnacle of pianos for me. I don’t know what to aspire to next, maybe they’ll come out with a new version.
Jason: Got it. Joe, thank you so much for taking time to share. I’m sure a lot of people are going to really enjoy some of your thoughts so I appreciate you.
Joe: I ever have any questions, you can find me on Facebook, Joe Bongiorno, you can go to my website, contact me there, my personal email is [email protected]
I’m happy to always answer any questions that I can you know give advice and pay it forward because when I first got started, there was a handful of artists that were so wonderful and took me under their wing in so many different ways and I’ll never forget them and I will pay it forward for the rest of my life.
Jason: I know you’re genuine about that. I watched you the first time I met you. I watched you just give amazing feedback to a lot of people so thank you.
Hey, it is Jason here and I hope you have gotten a lot of value out of this episode. Be sure to check out our show notes to learn more about our guest for today and if you’d like to support our podcast, there’s a few things that you could do to help us grow.
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Finding success and fulfillment in the music industry is possible. Looking forward to seeing you in our next episode.
How to Connect with the Featured Guest:
Joining us today is Joe Bongiorno. He is a piano player with a very incredible story. He shares with us his path to success in the music world, from having a restaurant business to being a renowned concert performer. In this episode, Joe will tell us how he got on top of his career earning 6-digits, getting out of debt, investing, and living the dream.
In this episode you will learn:
– how to earn from your music
– how to get an artist to give their best performance
– choosing a digital distributor and publisher
– his recommendations on where to learn the business side of music
Connect with Joe Bongiorno
Connect with Jason